Black Friday may be an exciting time for consumers looking to grab a bargain. But spare a thought for those CIOs and CTOs working in retail who have to ensure their systems are up and running, and ready for the annual consumer-led spendathon.
In 2022, global online sales around the Black Friday weekend global online sales around the Black Friday weekend were estimated to be more than more than $40 billion. With eye-watering numbers like these, any downtime during this busy period could cost retailers millions — and CIOs their jobs.
This is why the free flow of real-time data — essential to the smooth-running of those all-important marketing, sales, ordering, payments and fulfilment functions — is vital to guaranteeing operational efficiency to keep both retailers and consumers happy. And there’s no shortage of advice for retailers trying to do both.
“Experiment with early visibility, like countdown trackers, or target loyalty programme members with personalized offers,” wrote Boston Consulting Group as it called on retailers to leverage “first-party customer data to reach and convert seasonal, lapsed, or current customers.”
“Be sure to offer the big discounts that consumers are looking for — but be intelligent about it, to protect margins,” it said before urging retailers to take an “end-to-end view to understand where you can provide a steep discount…ideally with the help of advanced analytics.”
Real-time streaming is essential for data-driven sales
As the analysts at BCG rightly point out, data is pivotal to intelligent retailing. But that is only part of the solution. To accommodate the surge in demand, retailers are increasingly opting for real-time cloud-based data platforms with elastic scale capability that can flex and scale their online systems as necessary.
Of course, it’s not the only solution available. One approach would be to build a system so big that it’s capable of handling any amount of retail activity. But that simply wouldn’t make commercial sense. Such over-provisioning — solely to cater for a once-a-year event — would be a waste of time, money, people, resources and infrastructure.
Another tactic — which some retailers adopted before the availability of flexible cloud-based systems – involved spending weeks in the lead-up to Black Friday adding more computers into racks to physically increase capacity. Not only was this costly and complex, but it was also risky too.
Today, the stakes are so high that even with this added flexibility of ‘natively elastic’ cloud-based services retailers spend weeks in advance — including implementing a code freeze — as they prepare to scale up their service.
Preparation is key to success
As part of their meticulous preparation, organizations will run game days to test systems in advance to iron out any issues. It’s a far cry from just a few years ago when Black Friday was the game day. Unfortunately, many suffered as a result.
While there’s little doubt that billions will be spent in and around Black Friday, not all retailers will necessarily see big returns, due to aggressive discounting. Nevertheless, they still have to have a presence or risk damaging their brand.
What’s more, all retailers have to ensure that their online service is slick and faultless. If there are any hiccups — if there’s a problem with data-informed personalized shopping recommendations or any of the sales, ordering, payments, or fulfilment functions — customers will notice.
Some organizations are focussing on personalization more than ever for better customer experiences, including AO, the UK’s leading electrical retailer. AO uses real-time event streaming to allow its Customer Personalization team to deliver hyper-personalized online experiences by combining historical customer data with clickstream data and other real-time digital signals from across the business - this led to customer conversion rates increasing by up to 30%.
Of course, one of the things that makes Black Friday unique is that it is a global event. And again, this is where real-time data plays such an important part. The day starts in Australia and within seconds, real-time analytics can assess how sales are progressing.
As the day dawns in other regions, these real-time follow-the-sun analytics allow retailers to personalize offers, adjust prices and optimize sales across the whole globe. In effect, retailers are able to combine real-time analytics and stream processing to manage and adjust inter-regional pricing against stock levels as they sweep across the world.
Increasingly, retailers are looking to artificial intelligence (AI) to help give them an extra edge. Since AI thrives on data, the more up to date the data — be that transaction data, purchasing behaviours, or stock data — the better the results.
One area that’s of particular interest is anomaly detection to identify — and understand — both sales slumps and spikes to provide added insight into pricing and stock rotation.
Technology is getting smarter
All of this is happening at a time when technology is becoming smarter — and easier – to use. It’s being developed in such a way that retailers no longer need an army of coders or developers to make business and sales-based system changes. Instead, this can now be done by marketers and commercially focused people.
But even before the dust settles on Black Friday 2023, retail teams are already looking ahead to next year. Geo-political pressures — combined with tough economic conditions — mean that retailers can expect another year of difficult trading conditions.
But they must remember that consumers care a great deal about their customer experience, both digitally and online. A seamless user journey is key and understanding customers will be more important for retailers, than ever.
So rather than try and focus all their sales activity on a few key events, many would be advised to extract as much value out of sales across the whole year rather than gamble on a few high-stakes events.
By ensuring they have the right infrastructure in place — by adopting stream processing combined with the flexibility to scale — retailers can spread their risk across the whole year. That way, the focus isn’t just on Black Friday, but on keeping their retail operations in the pink throughout the year.